In the twenties of the last century, Russia and later also the Soviet Union had to deal with a huge number of orphaned children.
The First World War, followed by the Revolution and the Civil War, had orphaned many children. Then came the
famine of 1921 and 1922. In total, about 16 million Russians lost their lives during this period. In addition, many parents had lost contact with their children. The Soviet authorities were confronted with some 7 million abandoned or orphaned homeless children,
the besprizorniki, who roamed the vast country. The People's Commisariat of Education (Narkompros) in 1920 brought this huge problem to the attention of Dzerzhinsky. Dzerzhinsky was apparently moved by the misery of these millions of children
and decided to use his secret police, the Cheka, to do something about the problem of these abandoned children. His arguments were that his Cheka was a very efficient organization and that people took the Cheka seriously; in other words, they were terrified
of it. In early 1921, a committee to improve the lives of children was installed with Dzerzhinsky as its chairman. It caused quite a bit of unrest that precisely this man was going to improve the lives of children.
Most besprizorniki tried to survive
by begging. Or by doing small jobs for everyone. But in the heavily impoverished Soviet Union that was not easy and certainly not for the huge numbers that had to survive. A large number ended up in prostitution. Inevitably, juvenile delinquency increased
dramatically. Hunger and cold left few other choices open to the children.
The Soviet authorities not only wanted to (re)educate these homeless children, but they wanted to focus their education on all children in the Soviet Union by realizing a huge
communist movement among young people. The People's Commissariat for Education was given the task of organizing orphanages and education for the abandoned children. The orphanages were established in a spirit of revolutionary idealism, but were soon overwhelmed
by the magnitude of the problem of housing and feeding all these millions.